On the eve of its biggest press conference of 2017, Ubisoft held a smaller event for a crowd of journalists to demonstrate that, yes, it still had a few secrets up its sleeves. More than a few, in fact, and not small ones: the attendees got a first look at Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle, Skull & Bones, Starlink: Battle for Atlas, Transference, and Space Junkies. And whether it was a teamup with Nintendo or a new approach to customization, each of these titles represented an innovative new direction for Ubisoft.
The first presenter to take the stage was French Studios Managing Director Xavier Poix, who spoke about the long partnership between Ubisoft and Nintendo, which has produced Red Steel, Zombi U, and other games built around Nintendo’s tech – including Rayman Raving Rabbids, which birthed one of Ubisoft’s most recognizable franchises. Appropriately enough, the Rabbids are part of a new collaboration with Nintendo, teaming up with Mario and friends in Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle.
“It’s in the Rabbids’ DNA to invade new worlds”, said Poix. “We were lucky to meet with [Shigeru] Miyamoto in 2014 and present him with a prototype. Mr. Miyamoto was very enthusiastic about three things: our understanding of the Mario universe, a brand new take on… tactical games, and the passion of the team.”
Starting from a mocked-up, ad-inspired poster that was used to pitch the concept around Ubisoft, Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle is divided between adventure and exploration, and turn-based tactical battles. During the latter, you’ll take a team of three characters – picked from a pool of eight, including Mario, Peach, Yoshi, Luigi, and Rabbid doppelgangers of each – into shootouts with Rabbid versions of Mario’s enemies, who’ve invaded the world and more or less ruined everything.
Davide Soliani, the game’s creative director, described it as both a labor of love and a dream come true. Three and a half weeks after his team was told to work on the game, they had a prototype ready to present to Miyamoto.
“[Miyamoto] told us that he was impressed, so it went well,” said Soliani. “But he kept asking us how it was possible for us to have Mario and Luigi in our game, because they looked identical to the Nintendo ones. But the truth is that even [though] we had only three weeks and a half to come up with that prototype, we had started to recreate Mario and Luigi from scratch. Their animation, their models, their rig, studying all the Nintendo games we could in order to translate their essence into our game. And I do believe it was in that precise moment that we truly convinced Nintendo about our passion and our commitment.”
The team also called in Grant Kirkhope, the musician behind the soundtracks for Donkey Kong 64. Banjo-Kazooie, and GoldenEye. Soliani said Kirkhope was so passionate about the game, he repeatedly called Soliani at 3 in the morning (Milan time) about pieces of music Kirkhope had sent over.
Next up was Matt Rose, producer of Starlink: Battle for Atlas. As the team at Ubisoft Toronto wrapped up work on Splinter Cell: Blacklist, Rose said, the team started looking for a new project, and formed a team to explore new concepts and take calculated risks. Their members pitched, voted on, and created dozens of prototypes over the weeks that followed.
“There was one prototype in particular that was really special,” Rose said. “It had humble origins. It was a Wiimote with a consumer-electronics board duct-taped together with wires everywhere. And we built a game prototype to go with it, and it wasn’t much to look at, but everyone who played with it either got a big smile on their face, or started making their own sound effects.”
The team decided to dig a little deeper, and their efforts eventually created Starlink. Combining open-world exploration with an entirely new approach to customization, Starlink tasks you with piloting a battle-ready starship – which can seamlessly transition between traveling on the ground, in the air, and in space between planets – against a threat to the galaxy. More than that, it lets you clip a modular, physical starship to your controller, and swap out its wings, weapons, hull, and pilot to instantly adapt to any challenge, on the fly, with no pausing.
Following the Starlink demo, Ubisoft’s VP of Live Ops Anne Blondel-Jouin took the stage to reaffirm Ubisoft’s commitment to creating “live” games that bring players together and are supported well beyond launch. She then introduced one of Ubisoft’s next big live games, the multiplayer pirate simulator known as Skull & Bones.
“Players have been demonstrating their appetite for naval multiplayer piracy since Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag,” said Francois Logeais, director of product and content at Ubisoft Singapore. Skull & Bones has roots in Black Flag; not only do its majestic pirate ships evoke memories of sailing the Jackdaw, but Ubisoft Singapore took the lead on developing Black Flag’s oceanic gameplay.
Putting players in command of a ship sailing the Indian Ocean in the early 18th century, Skull & Bones challenges them to collaborate with, betray, and fight against other players in a persistent open world, all in the pursuit of riches and better ship upgrades.
“After several successful collaboration projects, we wanted to lead a brand new IP,” said Logeais. “And we wanted to do so by combining our passion and expertise of naval gameplay with the one thing we learned operating Ghost Recon Phantoms live for four years: that putting the community at the center of everything we do is paramount to succeed long-term.”
The remainder of the event was dedicated to two new virtual reality games. Ubisoft VP of Partnerships & Revenue Chris Early spoke about Ubisoft’s years of experience with motion control, citing early Wii games as well as Your Shape Fitness Evolved and Just Dance.
“Each of these are examples of how we’ve gone and taken something that probably wasn’t mainstream at the moment, but then took a look to see what they do with fun. And VR’s no different,” said Early. “We’ve been experimenting in VR, and doing research and development in VR, for several years now. And realistically, although it’s not taken off as fast as any of us would like, it’s still granted us some great learnings. And what we’re doing is taking these learnings and figuring out what makes for fun.”
The first of the games was Space Junkies, which lets players strap on a virtual jetpack and battle other players in three-dimensional space arenas, complete with grabbable weapons and full two-handed interactivity via Oculus Touch or HTC Vive controllers. Aimed at core gamers, Space Junkies moves fast, giving players full control to fly and shoot around microgravity battlegrounds – and to ensure the best experience possible, it was developed in VR.
“We decided to create a specific engine, a technology called Brigitte,” said Adrian Lacey of Ubisoft Montpellier, creators of Space Junkies. Created for pre-production VR development, Brigitte “allows us to develop bearing in mind the constraints that VR brings, and the new openings that it gives us, and the possibilities it gives us for our game-development process,” Lacey said.
Lacey showed off the technology during a Space Junkies demo, during which the developer at the controls paused the action to manipulate objects around him, using Oculus Touch controllers and motion physics to dramatically reshape the level in real time.
“In terms of gameplay, that’s changed everything for us. It changes the way we think in terms of game design,” said Lacey. “You have to really feel the presence in that world, otherwise it’s weird.”
Finally, Caroline Martin of Fun House (a division of Ubisoft Montreal) introduced Transference, a new title produced through a collaboration with SpectreVision, a production company co-founded by Elijah Wood.
“Transference is a psychological thriller gravitating around one idea: Being inside someone else’s mind,” said Martin. “Not embodying someone else, literally being, as ourselves, transported into the digital reconstruction of someone else’s mind. An uploaded and, hopefully, bug-free mind.”
The event was just a taste of what Ubisoft has in store for E3 2017; for more on what’s in store during this year’s show, including further details on the games mentioned above, keep your eye on UbiBlog and our continuing E3 coverage.